The Price of an Israeli Captive

The killing of three tank crewmen at Kerem Shalom, near the Gaza Strip, and of eight soldiers on patrol near Zar'it, on the Lebanese border, is regarded in Israel as a very high but necessary price for securing our borders. The loss of soldiers' lives is a disaster, but we have learned to handle it rationally.

In contrast, the capture of three of our boys in the same incidents is seen differently, and generates a different public response. Would Israel have gone to war with Hezbollah if the incident had ended differently, with the killing of all the soldiers in the patrol? There is no way of knowing, but past events suggest the answer would be no. It appears the quick trigger fingers of last summer were an expression of our heightened sensitivity to "redeeming captives." For the most part, the Israeli public believes that returning our captives is, simply, a necessity.

Should results be our only gauge regarding the ransoming of captives? Israel was reportedly offered Gilad Shalit, who was captured at Kerem Shalom, in exchange for 1,400 security prisoners. Is that a fair deal? It must be seen as a continuation of the extreme actions Israel has taken on behalf of its captives.

It took risks (in freeing hostages in Entebbe), it compromised (releasing 1,150 security prisoners, including murderers, in exchange for three Israelis in the Jibril deal), it humbled itself (when Ariel Sharon paid a high price for the release of Elhanan Tennenbaum, who was not a soldier but at best a shady businessman), it vented its rage (in choking the Gaza Strip, where Shalit is being held), and even, as mentioned before, went to war (diving into the Lebanese quagmire without serious forethought).

One can understand - and should respect - the acute Israeli concern for the captives' well-being. Their blood cries out from their prison cells. The captive is living-dead, dying bit by bit. In contrast to the dead, he senses his death for a long time. The blood of the captive's family is also spilled: The family lives in paralyzing uncertainty, pinned without a target date or liberation on the horizon. The relatives experience captivity as a black hole that swallows their lives.

The obligation to the captives is that much greater if they were taken prisoner while on active duty. The state has a courageous pact, written in blood, with its soldiers. This includes its duty to bring home anyone prepared to risk his life and his freedom for the homeland.

The price of life

Nevertheless, the ransom fee for captives is not absolute. This devotion to the pact cannot be blind and independent of the results. A life-seeking country cannot enslave itself to individual interests. Jewish tradition, which has learned from experience, understood that.

The Mishna says: "Captives should not be redeemed for more than their value, for the sake of repairing the world." On the face of it, this seems to be an inferior and anti-humanist ruling that forbids saving a person for extraneous reasons, such as economics or security. Should the liberal soul not turn away in disgust from valuing a captive like a product at the market, and refusing to buy if the price is too high?

Human life comes with a price tag. There is no sphere in which we consider human life as an absolute value. That is why we do not use public funds to pay for annual mammograms for all women - even though one out of nine will contract breast cancer; we do not ban cigarettes or outlaw smoking; we do not impose a speed limit of 30 kilometers per hour on highways; we have not relocated Sderot to the center of the country; and so on. In many cases, we favor the economy, efficiency, national pride, personal choice, foreign policy and other values and interests over human life.

Human existence is tainted by the phenomenon of lack. For that reason, no value - including concern for human life - can be presented as absolute. One life contradicts another. If we buy flak jackets, we will lack funds for medications. If we invest in better protection for tanks, we will lack the resources to better protect airliners. If we decide to dedicate our national budget to preserving life in every way and at any price, we will deal a death blow to our quality of life - culture, education, welfare and everything else that makes life worth living. Sometimes, when we must "repair the world," even a captive may die - just like the sick, the warrior, the woman, the driver and anyone else.

Everyone is familiar with the arguments against releasing prisoners at an inflated price: A generous deal encourages further abductions. The mortal danger facing the current captive is offset by the mortal danger facing future captives. Conceding to the kidnappers' demands means releasing prisoners who will return to terrorism. The deal undermines deterrence, as potential terrorists realize they will never serve their full sentence. Just on the basis of these arguments, it is clear that repairing the world means we must judge not by results only, but must take into account the cost of the deal.

And yet we must emphasize that a sovereign state needs to weigh other factors as well.

The binding of Isaac

The state and its leadership are responsible, first and foremost, for national security. The lives of every civilian and soldier are of the utmost importance, but they are secondary to national security. That is why we send our children to the draft in a modern binding of Isaac, and why we participate in the reserves while fully realizing the inherent personal risk. Moral and practical considerations justify risking the individual for the public good. Similarly, we must act on behalf of the captives - or refrain from acting on their behalf - out of public responsibility. Sometimes national security considerations override the safety of the individual.

This analysis has complex consequences. On one hand, the abduction of citizens and soldiers represents a ruthless defiance of the state that demands a response. Our enemies may interpret our restraint as weakness, and our troops may interpret it as abandonment.

Therefore, it is fully justified to use force against the abductors, including risking the lives of other soldiers. The blood of Nachshon Wachsman, the soldier abducted in 1994, was no redder than that of Nir Poraz, the officer killed while attempting to rescue him. Yet risking the lives of Poraz and others was justified, because the operation was not intended just to save one life, but also - and especially - to achieve national security objectives. Similarly, Yonatan Netanyahu died at Entebbe in a heroic operation whose immediate purpose was releasing hostages, but whose primary result was strengthening Israel's deterrent power.

On the other hand, a sovereign state must avoid sacrificing the higher interests of national security in order to redeem captives. In certain situations, the extreme sensitivity to the captives could ultimately become a real danger to our security.

To the outside world, paying an inflated price gives us the image of a country that is not willing to sacrifice, is easily blackmailed and has no backbone. In our neighborhood, sensitivity is not admired - it invites aggression. The proposed Shalit deal may cast Hamas as the great victor in the Gaza Strip and crown it as the Palestinian people's leader.

Conversely, an overly militant reaction is also undesirable. We embarked on a hasty military operation in Lebanon that only empowered Nasrallah as a leader and gave momentum to his resistance movement. Does the redemption of three captives justify this strategic price?

Domestically, because of our sensitivity, a bold operation by a well-trained terrorist squad was able to shake our national security, change our public agenda and dictate the national mood for a considerable period of time. The State of Israel found itself humiliated, almost defeated, by the abduction of a soldier. Does our responsibility for the captives, and our empathy with their families - however noble they be - justify our descent into national gloom? Can we allow our enemies not only to abduct our boys, but our joie de vivre as well?

The attention and sensitivity to the commandment of redeeming captives should never be dulled. It is legitimate to risk lives, even many lives, for the captives, but only if it is preceded by rational thought that weighs the pros and cons in terms of national security. The fate of the captives is one of the many issues on the public agenda. It must be dealt with in a manner that reflects its importance relative to other matters that generate threats and dangers to the country.

For their family and friends, the captive soldiers are the entire world. But submitting to secure their release "at any cost" may undermine the supreme objective for which they were sent to the front in the first place, and in whose name their comrades fell: bolstering the country's security.